A Guide for Reading and Writing About Crime
Helpful tips for journalists and readers
Most reporting about public safety and crime is incomplete and deceptive. I put together a few disclaimers for journalists to insert into their stories and for readers to think about when they consume the news.
The following are some quotes that can be inserted directly into virtually every news article about public safety that talks about “crime data” or “crime rates” or “crime surges” or a “crime wave.”
“Property crime data reported by the police excludes most property crime, including wage theft by employers (which costs low-wage workers about $50 billion per year, more than 3 times more than all police-reported property crime that makes its way into “crime rates”), and tax evasion, which steals about $1 trillion every year (which is about 20 times more than all wage theft and about 63 times more than all police-reported property crime combined).”
“Violent crime data reported by police excludes nearly all of the violent crimes committed by police and jail guards, which experts estimate to include several million physical and sexual assaults each year. Given their magnitude, including the crimes by government employees in crime statistics could entirely change the direction of crime trends reported by police at any given time.”
“The vast majority of sexual assault and gender-based violence is not reported to police and never makes it into official “crime rates” reported in the media because most survivors of such violence determine that police, prosecutor, and prison bureaucracies are not a viable or effective way to address that harm.”
“Police-reported crime rates are generally lower in societies that spend less money on police, prosecutors, and prisons and that spend more money on health care, treatment, early childhood education, youth activities, poverty reduction, and wellness.”
Police-reported property crime rates exclude civil forfeiture seizures by police themselves (which roughly equal all reported burglary combined), a large percentage of which are illegal.”
“The vast majority of all other types of crime—such as air and water pollution crimes, police perjury, prosecutor obstruction of justice, government corruption, insider stock trading, foreign bribery, etc.—are never reported to police and never pursued by prosecutors, and therefore they never show up in police-reported crime rates. Crime rates tend to capture a small subset of police-reported crimes committed by the poor, and to exclude crimes committed by the wealthy.”
“Across the United States, there have been numerous scandals of police departments manipulating reported crime rates and the mechanisms for collecting and reporting crimes in service of a political agenda.”
“When evaluating holistic safety, experts caution that it is important to keep in mind that many of the greatest threats to community public safety are not defined as crimes at all. The process of determining which harms are criminalized and which are not is a highly political process that has more to do with power than an objective evaluation of which activities are the most significant threats to public safety.”
Another important issue requiring disclaimers is the failure of most news stories to provide the proper context for the government or corporate officials who are being quoted. Every article could include the following directly after quoting a police officer or prosecutor or expert:
"Police officials have been shown to regularly make false and misleading statements to the media in order to mislead the public in service of a political agenda."
“Prosecutors have been shown to regularly make false and misleading statements to the media in order to mislead the public in service of a political agenda."
“The professor offered as an expert in this article is a [insert appropriate label: former police officer, former prosecutor, consultant who profits from consulting with police departments] who has a conflict of interest in the subject matter for which our news outlet sought their opinion.”
Perhaps most importantly, another common deception is reporting arrests, prosecutions, convictions, and sentencing outcomes as if they are a natural or effective response to a serious harm. This is one of the most important functions of copaganda in the media. To properly contextualize news coverage within the actual bounds of the available scientific knowledge, here are a few quotes that can be inserted in virtually every article:
“Based on the available scientific evidence, sentences of incarceration have no measurable effect on deterring future crime, and sentences to incarceration appear to slightly increase crime in the future due to the criminogenic effects of incarceration. Among sentences of incarceration, research shows that longer sentences have no additional deterrent effect at all.”
“Based on the available scientific evidence, criminal punishment is not an effective way to mitigate problems of substance abuse. After 50 years of increased drug criminalization at a public cost of over $1 trillion and tens of millions of people imprisoned, illegal drugs are more widely available and more potent than ever, and overdose deaths are at an all-time high.”
“Punishing someone by putting them in prison kills them. Every year in custody reduces a person’s life expectancy by two years.”
“Because of how many people the U.S. puts into prisons, the overall life expectancy of the average U.S. resident is 1.8 years lower than it would be if the United States had incarceration rates comparable to other countries.”
“Based on the available scientific evidence, there is no evidence that incarceration as a response to [Insert topic here: domestic violence, theft, sexual assault, murder, etc.] plays any role in creating a society with less of that particular harm.”
I hope this is helpful and that you are able to share it with people you know who are interested in covering or reading about the important issues of crime and safety.